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Tonal Emergency

He repeated it slowly in Chinese. “Ai-ya... Fire, Fire.” He then peered up at me and said those deathly words. “Say, Little Miss, have you ever heard of the four tones?”

By Suzanne Robare Updated Mar.1

I have lived in China for over 30 years, and while my Chinese isn’t really fluent, I can converse about the important things that were never covered in The Practical Chinese Reader, such as leaky faucets or bratty children. I can even carry on a conversation on the phone, although a co-worker pointed out that the person on the other end of the line wouldn’t mistake me for a Beijinger, but perhaps as someone from Hebei. Mindful of the fact that many of life’s emergencies are not really covered in most guidebooks, I have a laminated list of emergency words and phrases taped next to my front door, just in case. This has paid dividends for itself many times over.  

One summer I left my cushy job in Beijing to start an international school in another part of China. You don’t need to know where. Just know that on my second week in the apartment, the wettest, coldest week of the year, a pipe burst in the bathroom flooding the apartment in the middle of the night. I woke up in the very early morning and stepped into 15 centimeters of water. Disaster One. Then two weeks later, during the hottest week of the year, my building caught on fire.  

Smoke poured into my fifth-floor apartment from a vent. I touched the front door, which was hot. I ran to the window and shouted in Chinese, “FIRE! FIRE!” Two elderly gentlemen were strolling by. I shouted, “FIRE! FIRE!” again, hoping to get them to alert a guard and oh, I don’t know, the fire department. One looked up at me quizzically and asked, “What did you say?” “FIRE!!!” I screamed, smoke pouring out of the window around me. He repeated it slowly in Chinese. “Ai-ya… Fire, Fire.” He then peered up at me and said those deathly words. “Say, Little Miss, have you ever heard of the four tones?” I stared at him in shock. Really? REALLY?? He took this as encouragement and warmed to his subject, repeating the word “Fire” in first tone, second tone, third tone and fourth tone, finger wagging to illustrate the tone marks. For the record, I did say the word correctly using the third tone. Granted, I SHOULD have said huozai (third tone, first tone) which is a bit more rich of a description, but frankly, in an emergency, one word will do. In fact, what did the trick was me screaming at the top of my lungs, which brought a guard, who saw the smoke and called the fire department while I bolted down the back stairs with my two dogs firmly wrapped up in wet towels to keep them safe.  

So there I was outside, on the hottest day of the year, dripping with nervous sweat and coughing like hell from smoke inhalation, clutching my two dogs. A paramedic told me to go to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation and I realized I didn’t know what insurance I had with my new job, so I called my boss. “Yeah, about that…” he said, then paused. “We’re not sure the school is going to open, so we didn’t buy any insurance. In fact, don’t bother coming in tomorrow as we’re closing the school. You just drink some hot water and you’ll be fine.” As I was wondering how the day could get worse, it did: a fist fight broke out between the fire department and the owner of the first-floor apartment, who did not want the dirty fire hoses dragged across his freshly laid carpets. And then I started to laugh, and I was fine, because I was alive, and my dogs were safe, and somehow, someway, everything would be all right, and it was: I camped out for a week or so in that burned-out apartment without lights or power, but when the internet was reconnected, a job opened up for me in a city not far away, and I got out safely.  

And I repeat, for the record, I not only know what the four tones are, but I pronounced the word “Fire” correctly. Third tone. Huo. May I never need to say it again.